Students building hovercrafts in Kentucky school’s math class

Students building hovercrafts in Kentucky school’s math class

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 10:13 am
By: By The Associated Press

The Messenger 11.17.11

By TODD KLEFFMAN
The Advocate Messenger
DANVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Physics students at Danville High School got some attention last month for designing and building mobile thrones to race in the Great Outhouse Blowout, but that project is strictly old-fashioned compared to what seventh-grade math students at Bate Middle School are working on.
Hovercrafts.
That’s right, the 12- and 13-year-olds are creating vehicles that will actually float above the ground on a cushion of air and carry student racers down the hallways of the school when they are completed next month.
“When I gave out the syllabus at the beginning of the year, as soon as the word ‘hovercraft’ got out of my mouth, the questions starting flying: ‘We’re going to build a hovercraft? What is a hovercraft? Will it really fly?”’ said math teacher Sarah Waite. “It’s a futuristic idea that really draws them in.”
The students are about halfway through the process of answering those questions for themselves. They started in teams three weeks ago talking about ratios and proportions and budgeting for the needed materials. They are currently building scale models of the vehicles using plastic drinking straws and masking tape.
Over the next two weeks, they will be transferring what they’ve learned so far to create the real deals that will actually hover down the hallways.
Granted, the Pentagon won’t be interested in purchasing the hovercrafts the students are building. They are spartan to be sure: a plywood base 48 inches long girded by PVC pipe and powered by a blower plugged into an electrical outlet. But they will hover.
At least they did last year.
Special education teacher Tim Breitenbach built successful hovercrafts with his students a year ago and Waite eagerly adopted the project for her students this year, with some of Breitenback’s students mingled in her math classes.
The program of building hovercrafts in schools was initiated by the University of Kentucky’s College of Education eight years ago as a research project to help measure the effectiveness of the project-based learning concept, in which students are stimulated by participating in hands-on experiences related to the subject matter they are studying.
Bate joined a handful of other schools around the state participating in the research last year as Danville began shifting to a project-based learning approach at its schools. Students in Waite’s second period math class took a test before the hovercraft project began and they will be tested again after it is finished to guage how well they absorbed the concepts they used.
Waite, a second-year teacher, loves being part of the UK research.
“It’s awesome. It’s stuff I could have never come up with myself,” she said.
UK not only provides the raw materials needed to build the vehicles — which would be beyond Bate’s budget — but also provides lesson plans and even homework assignments to help Waite in the classroom. In turn, she documents the process and turns that work over to the researchers, along with testing results.
Not only does building a hovercraft help students with new ideas they are studying like ratios and proportions, it also helps reinforce concepts they’ve studied in the past such as measuring and money counting skills needed for working within a budget. Fractions is one area that students always need a refresher in, Breitenbach said.
“Kids always have a tough time with fractions,” he said. “If you can integrate that with project based learning stuff, they learn it better.”
Waite and Breitenbach are both convinced students are better served when they can get enthusiastic about what they are learning, and a do-it-yourself project like making a hovercraft fits the bill in that regard.
The students agree.
“It’s like hands-on and everybody likes to do something with their hands instead of reading textbooks all day,” said Charlie Lynch.
Brianna Tucker said the novelty of it makes learning more fun and productive.
“It’s something new we haven’t done before,” she said.
Billy Critchfield indicated he’s learning math concepts while doing something he enjoys.
“It’s not just about the hovercraft, it’s about making one,” he said. “It sort of teaches us about geometry, shapes, angles, measuring, making the connectors work. We have to work out the math to build it without overspending our budget.”

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